This web site/blog is part of a project called “(Candle)sticks on Stone: Representing the Woman in Jewish Tombstone Art” for which I received the Michael Hammer Tribute Research Award from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute — and where I took up a Scholar in Residence fellowship on Jan. 10, 2011.
In Jewish tradition, Sabbath candles are a common, and potent, symbol on women’s tombs. That is because lighting the Sabbath candles is one of the three so-called “women’s commandments” carried out by female Jews: these also include observing the laws of Niddah separating men from women during their menstrual periods, and that of Challah, or burning a piece of dough when making bread.
The first time I saw a Jewish woman’s tombstone bearing a representation of candles was in 1978, when for the first time I visited Radauti, the small town in the far north of Romania near where my father’s parents were born. The tombstone in question was that of my great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, who died in 1946 and in whose honor I received my middle name. Her gravestone is a very simple slab, with a five-branched menorah topping an epitaph.
Since then, and particularly over the past 20 years, I have visited scores if not hundreds of Jewish cemeteries in East-Central Europe, documenting them, photographing them, and writing about them in books and articles.
Carvings on Jewish tombstones include a wide range of symbols representing names, professions, personal attributes, or family lineage — as well as folk decoration. In northern Romania and parts of Poland and Ukraine in particular, cemeteries include a variety of wonderfully vivid motifs, and some stones still retain traces of the brightly colored painted decoration that once adorned them.
Candlesticks on women’s tombs are more or less a constant: sometimes they are very simple renditions, yet they can be extraordinarily vivid bas-relief sculptures. In some instances, broken candles represent death. And in some cemeteries, the carving is so distinctive that you can discern the hand of individual, if long forgotten, artists.
For this project, I use the Jewish cemetery in Radauti as the focus of a photographic documentation of women’s tombs. Focusing on the town provides the project with a personal as well as professional dimension.
As noted above, I chose to concentrate on the Jewish cemetery in Radauti because of its historical importance and its extensive collection of well-preserved tombstones. Hundreds of stones here bear unforgettable images featuring exquisitely carved representations of candlesticks — sometimes braided candlesticks — and, often, a woman’s hands blessing the lights.
But Radauti is also of great personal importance to me because my father’s parents
emigrated to the U.S. from the town, and some of my ancestors — including my great-grandmother Ettel as well as (as I only discovered while working on this project) my great-great grandmother, Chaya Dvoira — are buried here. I plan to use parts of my own grandmother’s hand-written memoirs to supplement the historical notes, anecdotes, personal stories, interviews and reflections that will accompany the photographs.
I use this blog to record progress and to post my own thoughts, reflections and observations, as well as other related material, including reflection and comments from some of my relatives.
This project will both complement and benefit from the work of descendants of Radauti Jews, the tiny local Jewish community and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania, who have recently joined forces to document the town’s Jewish heritage.